Is Mumbai ready to include the excluded?

Every year the world celebrates International Day for Disabled Persons on December 3. The celebration of this day gives me a reason to create this post. I am somehow against the term “disabled”. Having a limitation does not disable them but differently ables them from performing a certain task. So I choose to use the term “differently abled” because disability is all in the mind.

The question here is “How differently abled friendly is Mumbai?”

Mumbai may be a Shanghai in the making but not for all. According to the Government of India statistics, 5 per cent of Mumbai’s population suffers from some disability. This 5 per cent is often given low priority or are excluded from official statistics. Many forms of disability are difficult to capture in statistics, often due to under-reporting. Differently abled persons are often excluded from school or the workplace and are forced to depend on others in the family and community for physical and economic support. The limitations of the differently abled persons are misunderstood and they are considered as non-productive persons.

There are many parameters where the differently abled are included as well as excluded.

Access:

The BEST, Indian Railways and all airlines provide special concessions for the differently abled.

BEST buses have only 3 seats reserved for them with very little legroom. Differently abled persons often complain of the steps being too high. That is when the BEST came to their rescue by introducing Starbus which has a low floor and a ramp. This new feature has come as a saviour but the numbers of Starbuses plying on the road are very few. However, the Starbus does not have a wheel-chair lock facility so that the wheel-chair remains stationary even thought the bus is moving. But the differently abled’s woes do not begin here. Waiting for buses is another nightmare as most bus-stops do not have seating arrangements.

Indian Railways has a separate compartment reserved for the differently abled but how many of them can actually find such compartments? There is neither a fixed location for the compartment nor there is any indication on the platform. One obviously cannot expect a differently abled person to run around looking for their designated compartment. Before getting onto the platform, buying a ticket and waiting in the serpentine queues is very difficult. Climbing foot-over-bridges and subways is another gigantic task for them. Also, the distance from the train to the platform is high. Hence, most of them avoid travelling by trains. For outstation train travelling, the Railways has been a little easy on them by providing a separate queue for booking tickets and are the preference for lower berths. In addition, there is special concession to one escort. Differently abled people suggest installing ‘ambulifts’ (platforms designed to accommodate a wheelchair that can be elevated by the press of a button) or a ramp instead of staircases. This will not only help them but also senior citizens and people carrying heavy luggage.

Airports are supposed to provide wheel-chairs but more often than not, they have to struggle their way to the aircraft. In the aircraft, the facility of a differently abled chair is absent.

Taxis and auto rickshaws are very uncomfortable owing to the limited leg space. In the private automobile sector, Maruti recently unveiled ‘Solio’, a disabled friendly car at the 8th Auto expo. However, Maruti is yet to decide if ‘Solio’ will be launched or not. Other Car manufacturers are planning to come up with similar models but the market for such cars is not very lucrative, but in order to make it so the government could give some benefits to the manufacturers.

Infrastructure and architecture:

Roads and footpaths are uneven because of the constant digging by different companies such as the MCGM, MTNL, Bharat Gas and so on. Footpaths in some areas are either missing, encroached by hawkers or are just too high. Differently abled persons avoid foot-over-bridges and subways to avoid climbing stairs. Many important junctions and busy roads do not have signals installed for pedestrian safety. Differently abled persons feel that the duration of the signal is so less that it does not give them sufficient time to reach the other side of the road.

In places of worship, the approach roads are encroached. There are many steps thus making it almost impossible for the differently abled to reach to the top.

In most places, staircases do not have railings till the end of the flight of stairs which makes it even more difficult for them to climb. Differently abled persons feel that very little modifications can be done to alter old constructions but at least the new constructions could be more sensitive towards their needs.

Public toilets are definitely not designed to suit their needs. They are not equipped with grab-bars and anti-skid flooring.

Entertainment:

Fortunately, malls are well-equipped with sufficient wheel-chairs, escalators and elevators, thus making it easy for the differently abled persons.

Most tourist spots in the city are old structures and not all of them have ramps to accommodate wheel-chairs. Most staircases are steep and high and there is no provision for escalators and elevators. Even if there are elevators, admission is reserved only for employees. Some of the tourist spots even do not have adequate seating arrangements. Amusement parks and water parks do not cater to the differently abled segment. They do not have any rides or pools specially designed for them.

Most tour operators have custom-made tour packages for the differently abled but the schedules are so tight that they often complain of exertion. Also, these tours are enormously expensive.

Support:

Most differently abled persons often face humiliation as person constantly label them for their limitations and shortcomings. They are looked down upon my society. Most of them have experienced exclusion and oppression all their lives. They have been belittled by the attitude of people who do not believe that even differently abled persons want to achieve their dreams and aspirations. There needs to be an education system that is inclusive rather than segregationist since children who study in special schools are over-protectively nurtured and unprepared to take on the world. Activists feel that sending such children to regular educational institutions is the best way to prepare them for the normal world. Though there are many organizations that work towards the welfare of such persons most of the organizations do not provide emotional support. Differently abled persons do not have the benefit of an equivalent of a Nana-Nani park where they can interact with similar people.

In India, the term ‘barrier-free environment’ has come into use only in the last decade. The Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, commonly known as the Disability Act, enforced in 1995 acknowledge the need for easy access to services and public places. The Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, takes up the matter of barrier-free environs with the Ministry of Urban Development once every four months at an inter-ministerial council meet. Most of these people are unaware of their rights and hence do not fight for them.

A few examples to create a barrier-free environment for the differently abled could be:

  • Marking the first and last steps on a stair flight with contrasting paint
  • Anti-skid rubber mats in bathrooms
  • Anti-skid floors in public places
  • Sufficient seating arrangement and wheel-chairs
  • No thresholds in doorways
  • Grab bars in rooms and in trains
  • Proper ramps and ambulifts in public places
  • Better signage including Braille signage
  • Separate queues at places that require a ticket.
  • Providing support to help them help themselves.

On the whole the differently abled persons in Mumbai are denied equal access to information, education, employment, buildings and public transportation.

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